I hear it all the time: “I don’t like bitter/hoppy beers”. These are two words those getting into craft beer say a lot, and it’s understandable. Humans are notorious for having our own distinct tastes. You hear this thrown around a lot when talking about IPAs, although the first also gets stated when talking about a dark beer. But the reality I think is that people fail to realize that everything with beer takes a bit of getting used to, and that’s true of different styles.
Now the IPA is a beloved style for craft beer drinkers and brewers alike, but to those more novice to the style it comes across as harsh and pungent, usually defining it as bitter. And it is, that much is certain. But bitterness is something we’re not accustomed to when we are young, but as we get older we find ourselves enjoying the flavor with exposure. So too must we expose ourselves to the different examples to find ourselves liking it.
What makes an IPA?
The very first thing I think we should consider here is “What makes an IPA?” Well, first is the history. IPA, for India Pale Ale, is a style usually told in various formats with a historical context: The voyage from England to India was long, hot and difficult, and they needed a way to keep the beer from spoiling on the journey. The story goes that they learned to throw hops in the barrel after fermentation, now known as “Dry hopping”, and the preservative nature of the hops helped to keep the beer from spoiling. This also ended up giving the beer a more distinctly hoppy taste that the sailors grew to love. It therefore was named the “India Pale Ale” as commonly they’d take Pale Ales on these journeys and were named after the trip to India.
There are other versions of this story, such as a barrel of the beer fell off a ship and washed ashore and some bar patrons tried it and loved it, but the general consensus was that this was a beer specifically designed for the voyage from England to India.
But the IPA is a constantly evolving and changing style of beer, and perhaps one of the most commonly brewed styles throughout the craft beer world. Let’s look at a few styles. Note: These are not necessarily official BJCP definitoins I’m using but rather an overlook of many trends in the IPA world today.
Burton IPA: The historic IPA, which is associated with the area of Burton upon Trent, tends to use 100% Marris Otter Pale Malt for its grist but sometimes is brewed with Brettanomyces. This is perhaps the best source I’ve found as it includes historical records of the mash schedule. Many articles I’ve seen covering this topic indicates additional aging occured with a Brittish strain of Brettanomyces found in oak. Additionally, the typed of malts have also changed and became paler with time, so adding more caramel malts will simulate this style of beer. These were traditionally hopped with British hops such as East Kent Golding and measured around 70-80 IBUs. ABV generally around 7-8%
English IPA: Since the historical times brewing traditions have changed, and aging in a untoasted oak cask is no longer common. Instead beer is most commonly fermented and conditioned in stainless steel fermenters on a professional level, and glass and plastic carboys on the homebrew level (though some reach for the super sleek looking stainless steel conical fermenters). So brettanomyces is no longer commonly doing some secondary fermentation of the beer these days. Additionally Crystal malt is used more commonly these days, lending to a richer color and sweetness to the malt body, and using mostly British hops such as East Keng Goldigns and Fuggles and lend to a floral and spicy character, but coming in around 40-50 IBUs and fermented with a British Yeast. ABV Generally around 5-7%
American / West Coast IPA: The American IPA is the widest and perhaps most common form of the IPA these days. According to Mitch Steele in the March/April 2016 issue of Zymurgy, the defining characteristics of the classic American IPA (usually the older recipes in craft breweries these days that is still commonly made) is use of Pale 2 Row instead of British Pale Malt, a bit of Caramel or Munich malt, and classic American hops such as Chinook, Cascade, Centennial, and Columbus hops lending to a citrusey and piney hop aroma and flavor. Usually fermented with a neutral yeast lending to a dryer character and an ABV of 6-7%
Modern IPA: The modern IPA builds upon the revolution of the American/West Coast IPA and pushes the boundries further. Far less, if any, caramel or Munich malt is used and newer types of hops are introduced to make a more unique hop aroma, mixing fruit and citrusy aromas together with the traditional hop aromas. The quantity of hops is also nearly double what it used to be, at ten or more ounces per five gallons. Fementation is neutral and dry to let the hop aroma take the forefront. ABV generally around 7-8%
Belgian IPA: This substyle is a bit looser and less defined than others and trying to pinpoint a firmer definition is a bit trickier. The main defining factor for this tends to be fermenting a normal IPA with a Belgian strain of yeast, which lends to a wilder flavor with a higher ester level than usually desired in a modern IPA. It provides a nice counter point to the hops, especially when the two are well balanced. ABV varies widely at 6-12%
Imperial/Double/Triple IPA: This is a loose term for any IPA above 8% ABV. Specifically “Triple” IPA is even less loosely defined, but I’d subjectively say it would apply to any IPA above 10%.
NorthEast IPA: A relatively new style, this IPA style is taking some purist back a bit. Where as the normal American and Modern IPA are crisp, clean, clear, and dry, these IPAs are hazy, opaque, yeasty, and juicy. Made with a malt body with wheat and oat bodies up to 50% in some cases, these stand in stark contrast to their forefathers and have turned soem people uneasy, but I find them fascinating. Hops tend to lend towards the fruitier side and the yeast choice tends to lean towards English Ale III.
Fruit IPA: Fruit in beer often seems to receive some derision from purists, but given the often fruity nature of the IPA it has been getting more exposure these days. Fruits like Graprefruit, Pinapple, and Mango compliment the already citrusy and fruity characteristics of the American hop varieties and more are sure to be explored
Other variations: There are many more varieties of IPA out there, mixing characteristics of other styles together into a entirely new form of IPA, Red IPAs, Rye-IPAs, Black IPAs (Which I find to be a misnomer but that’s another story) IPL (India Pale Lager), and so on.
But they’re so bitter!
If you’re still reading and are not a fan of IPAs I commend you. Perhaps you’re wanting to understand the trend better, or you ared wanting to try and look at things a bit differently to find an IPA that perhaps will draw you in. But they’re so bitter you say. Well, perhaps you need to try the right IPA.
The IPA is notorious for it’s bitterness, which is generally ranked by IBUs. Above 40 IBUs and you’ll definitley notice a bit of bitterness to your beer. But I look at things like a chef: flavor is not ruled by just one component, but rather how all the components balance together to create it’s flavor. A seriously bitter IPA needs something to counteract it: sweetness. There are three things in cooking that bring out the flavor of a food in all its glory: Salt, sugar, and fat. Fat is not an option for beer, and salt is an entire topic about water that I’m not qualified to really comment on yet. Suffice to say, if you want a salty beer you’ll probably be drinking a Gose.
So sugar is what we’re left with. We of course get that from the maltose and maltodextrin in our beer. What this means for our IPAs is that it’s a blancing game. We have to balance our sweetness against the bitterness so that the bitterness does not leave us cringing and the sweetness does not drown out the flavors and aromas we’re after. Which leads to the next topic.
The true beauty of the IPA are the flavors and aromas of the hops we’re showcasing. Get the thought of “Bitterness” out of your mind and think about the aromas that I mentioned: floral, spicy, citrusy, fruity; those are the flavors we want to be at the forefront of our beer. The bitterness should not be so much and so sharp that it overpowers those flavors, and instead should highlight them. mixed With the forementioned sugar, they should taste crisp, just a tad bit sweet but mostly dry, and the hops should taste bright and have a fresh punch in it, not a sharp bitter kick with muddled, indistinguishable flavors.
People still seem to be confused by the fact that food pairing is an important part of appreciating the flavor of a beer. If you want to see a full chart of suggested food pairings you can see it here. When it comes to IPAs, bold flavors are prefferable. Heavy and hot spices (both the flavor inducing kind and the kind that’ll make you sweat so much the old spice guy will throw deoderant at you) complement the sharp citrusy characteristics of most IPAs. Barbeque and rich roasted meats and vegetable also do well.
These flavors will leave a taste on your tongue that the flavors in the beer play well with. If you eat something less complementary to the flavors it can throw off your meal and appreciation for the beer at large. Having something sweat and chocolatey, for example, won’t complement the hops as well and can throw the taste off. That would go better with a stout than an IPA.
Time is also an important factor for your IPAs. Some beers do well when aged as their heavy flavors mellow out and build more complex flavors over time. IPAs do not. The hop oils we pine over with an IPA fade over time, leaving us with a less hop forward and more bitter and sweeter beer. It can be interesting in the case of double and triple IPAs, as the higher final gravity lends to a sweeter malt profile and can actually work out, but overall for the full effect of the IPA is not at all desired. So check the IPA when you go to buy them and see when they were bottled. More than two months old? Don’t buy it.
Finally, it also takes time to get adjusted to these hop flavors. It’s new, interesting, and exciting. I remember when I first started drinking beer, Sam Adams Boston lager was the only “Craft” choice easily accessible and the hoppy bitterness from that seemed too intense. Now it’s completely tame and bland to me. Same with IPAs. It took me years before I truly got into them, and frankly, I’ve never looked back.